Folk musician Peter Stampfel moved from the Midwest to New York in late 1959, just a few months before Dylan arrived in the city, and by 1963 he formed the Holy Modal Rounders with Steve Weber (which later included drummer and playwright Sam Shepard).
Folk musician Peter Stampfel moved from the Midwest to New York in late 1959, just a few months before Dylan arrived in the city. They were each under the spell of 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-album set that was compiled by Harry Smith, another downtown dweller. By collecting folk, blues, and country songs from 1927 to 1932, the Anthology provided much of the source material for the folk music revivalists. “For almost the first time,” Van Ronk recalled, “it gave us a sense of what traditional music in the United States was all about, from the source rather than from second-and third-hand interpreters. The Anthology has eighty-two cuts on it, and after a while we knew every word of every song.” Stampfel recalled that there were two main schools of folk at the time: the traditionalists, who valued “authenticity,” and the more polished performers who could be heard on the radio. “Each camp felt that the other was being apostate,” he said. “It was the people who had heard the Harry Smith anthology and the people who hadn’t heard the Harry Smith anthology, that was the dichotomy.” In 1961, Stampfel was living on MacDougal Street and playing more traditional roots music at local coffeehouses. Two years later, in 1963, he founded the Holy Modal Rounders with Steve Weber, then expanded the lineup to include drummer and playwright Sam Shepard during the second half of the 1960s.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When the Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel arrived on the Lower East Side in 1959, the midwesterner was a bit leery of living in a slum. Is it dangerous? he wondered. Is there trouble? Yes, it could be a bit sketchy, but this was counterbalanced by the incredibly cheap rents. Bibbe Hansen—who lived at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D—recalled that it was an extremely poor neighborhood. “It was more about poverty than anything else,” she said. “There were artists living around where I was living, but mostly because we were poor. There are so many important people that were part of the everyday landscape that are now these monumental, awesome giants of alternative culture and experimental art.” Agosto Machado had always found the West Village to be a little expensive, so he mostly lived on the East Side. “Now, we’re talking thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-dollar-a-month apartments,” Agosto Machado said. “That allowed a generation of people to come to New York City and spend, like, three-quarters of their time being an artist and a quarter of their time doing some sort of pickup day work to pay for your rent.” By the mid-1960s, the social and economic dynamics in the neighborhood were shifting—as was the Lower East Side’s name. “The landlords changed the name to the East Village so they could make a little more rent,” recalled Peter Crowley. “That began in the early sixties, and by the mid to late sixties it was like a gold rush.” Richard Meyers was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and landed on the Lower East Side in late 1966; within a few years he had reinvented himself as Richard Hell. As a child, he and his mother had visited his grandmother in the West Village every three or four years, so he already had an impression of the city. “The West Village was—in terms of New York—deceptively quaint and peaceful and beautiful,” Hell said. “It wasn’t until I actually came here that I got exposed to Fourteenth Street and Forty-Second Street and the East Village—the real New York, which is much more squalid than this isolated Village where my grandmother lived.”
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Ed Sanders fully immersed himself in the underground film scene after seeing Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees at the Charles Theatre and meeting Warhol at a Film-Makers’ Cooperative screening. “Finally the inspiration of Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative made me decide to acquire a 16-mm camera,” he recalled. “I went to my friend Harry Smith for advice.” Smith was known in music circles for his Anthology of American Folk Music, but he was a man of many talents and interests, including experimental filmmaking. Harry suggested buying a “battle camera, like the kind they used filming the war,” which he found at Willoughby’s Camera on West Thirty-Second Street. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage showed Sanders how to use it, and Mekas helped him locate inexpensive film stock. By 1965, Sanders started making Amphetamine Head: A Study of Power in America, about Lower East Side speed demons such as Billy Name and Ondine. “There were plentiful supplies of amphetamine,” Sanders recalled, “sold fairly cheaply in powder form, on the set.” The set, as Sanders’s friend Peter Stampfel explained, was their slang term for the scene: “Like, ‘That guy’s such a dick, he should be bricked off the set,’ ” Stampfel said. “You know, being kicked out of the scene for being an asshole.” Sanders observed that because so many “viewed their lives as taking place on a set, there was no need to hunt afar for actors and actresses. What a cast of characters roamed the Village streets of 1963!”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel remembered the neighborhood surrounding Tompkins Square Park as being relatively safe in the early 1960s (with “relatively” being the operating word). “A lot of speed freaks had a bad reputation for running around stealing and being sociopathic and that sort of thing,” he said, “which was partially true. Things started getting a little dicier in 1962, which was the year a lot of runaway kids hit the Village, so then the Forty-Second Street sleaze started hanging around the set. But when the Summer of Love bullshit happened, it really went downhill. The counterculture suddenly became something everyone was aware of. Around 1967, the flower people were being touted far and wide in the mass media, so every ex-con semi-sociopathic creep in the country was like, ‘Teenage girls who fuck, take drugs, let’s go!’ So there was a huge influx of sleaze.” Richard Hell, who arrived in the Lower East Side in late 1966, recalled, “When I got over there, hippiedom was peaking, while at the same time it was collapsing, where ripeness turns to rot. There were head shops everywhere, and barefoot kids with flowers in their hair who were panhandling and were tripping. But then every few months there would be a headline story about a Lower East Side crash pad where somebody had overdone it and put out everyone’s eyes with an icepick, taking ‘flower power’ a little too far.”
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“The Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Velvet Underground were the only authentic Lower East Side bands,” guitarist Sterling Morrison said, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration. “We were real bands playing for real people in a real scene. We helped each other out if we could and generally hung out at the same places.” Poet and provocateur Ed Sanders had already formed the Fugs in late 1964, a few months before the Velvets coalesced. “I felt camaraderie towards The Velvets,” Sanders recalled. “We overlapped. So people would come to both shows. Nico used to come to my bookstore, the Peace Eye.” The connections among this lowly trinity of bands ran deep. The Holy Modal Rounders first emerged on the Lower East Side in May 1963, and about a year later Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber joined the Fugs—contributing radio-unfriendly songs to the group’s repertoire (like Stampfel’s “New Amphetamine Shriek” and Weber’s “Boobs a Lot”).
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The duo split up in the summer of 1965, but the next year the Holy Modal Rounders were offered a princely sum to reunite at a music festival. Neither man could pass up the money; Peter Stampfel was so broke he had put his fiddle in hock at a Second Avenue pawn shop, which he retrieved for the show. As he stood in the shop holding his instrument, Theatre Genesis playwright Sam Shepard walked up to him and asked, “Hey, do you play bass?” One thing led to another, and the playwright-drummer joined the Holy Modal Rounders, and ESP-Disk signed them to make a new record. Shepard played drums on 1967’s Indian War Whoop, but the record company didn’t include his photo on the album’s sleeve because he had cut his hair short (as a way of protesting “all that Summer of Love bullshit,” as Stampfel put it). The band signed with Elektra Records and went to Los Angeles in March 1968 to record The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, which included their best-known number, “The Bird Song.” It ended up on the Easy Rider soundtrack after being edited by Dennis Hopper into a memorable scene with Jack Nicholson on the back of a chopper, flapping his wings. While out West, the Holy Modal Rounders opened for Pink Floyd at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco and appeared on the comedy variety TV show Laugh-In.
Soon after Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg formed the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders teamed up with them to create the first incarnation of the Fugs. “Someone told me Sanders and Tuli had written a bunch of songs like ‘Coca-Cola Douche’ and ‘Bull Tongue Clit,’ ” Peter Stampfel recalled. “So I went to listen at the Peace Eye Bookstore, and I saw that the only instrument was Ken Weaver playing a hand drum. So I said, ‘Hey, you can use a backup band.’ It was an obvious thing to put together, so that’s how Steve Weber and I started playing with them.” After signing a deal with Folkways Records, the band recorded their first album in April 1965. Along with several original songs, the Fugs included two Blake poem adaptations on their Harry Smith–produced debut, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction. In addition to live gigs and vinyl records, the group could also be heard on free-form radio shows. Their performance of “Carpe Diem” at a Judson Church memorial service for comedian Lenny Bruce, for example, was recorded by Bob Fass and aired on WBAI (Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and many other musicians, poets, and political activists also made appearances on Fass’s show over the years).
“The Rounders were actually invented by my ex–old lady Antonia,” Peter Stampfel said. “She talked about her ex-boyfriend Steve Weber, who was a serious speed freak. He’d been living in the street for a year, year and a half, walking around barefoot and stepping in dog shit and glass, as the story goes.” Stampfel was expecting a scary old guy, but Weber was only nineteen and looked like an idealized Li’l Abner. Hey, Stampfel thought, it looks like my long-lost brother. Better still, Weber played a steel-stringed guitar, not the type of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” nylon-stringed guitars that Stampfel loathed. The plan of action was obvious: Take a bunch of amphetamine and play some music! After a few hours of crazed jamming, Peter said, “I gotta go to work. Do you want to come play with me?” The audience at the Gaslight was instantly knocked out by their act, so the speeding folkies basically kept playing for three days straight, bouncing from place to place. At the end of their musical bender, they glimpsed themselves in a mirror while performing in Café Rafio. Holy fuck, Stampfel thought, that’s the most weird-ass shit I’ve ever seen. The two were sporting what could be called an old-timey style: jeans, vests, pony-skin shoes, and long hair (a look that was later adopted by the hippies). This uniform was favored by traditional musicians, who worshiped Folkways Records’ Anthology of American Folk Music.
When the Holy Modal Rounders got together, after first playing together at the Gaslight, the traditionalists maintained a strict purity—for example, they would not perform songs written after the Great Depression. Around 1963, Peter Stampfel wondered, What would happen if you could take all the Anthology people at the age they were then—you know, young—and introduce them to what was going on in the 1960s—you know, rock ’n’ roll? This was a lot more interesting than following the dictum “Don’t do anything past 1939.” More practically, this meant that whenever Stampfel couldn’t understand the original words from an old, crackling 78 rpm record, he had some creative license. “So the fact that my alterations were actually an improvement was still another reason to not be a cookie-cutter copy.” The Rounders’ self-titled debut was recorded on November 21, 1963, the day before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and its song “Random Canyon” contained the first use of the word psychedelic on record. “Take me back to Random Canyon, where the gryphon’s always riffin’ and the unicorn is horny in the spring,” Stampfel sang in his high-pitched warble, “and the psychedelic sage keeps the cattle in a rage, and the changing range is getting pretty strange.” Stampfel said he wanted to be the groundbreaker, so he very consciously inserted the word psychedelic into his song. The Rounders were irreverent to their core, which ruffled some folkie feathers, and their first album was largely ignored by their target audience—save for folk bible Sing Out! magazine, which dismissed the group as not being serious enough.
Patti Smith began pivoting from Off-Off-Broadway to poetry and rock ’n’ roll around the time she befriended playwright and drummer Sam Shepard. They first met after a Holy Modal Rounders show downstairs at the Village Gate, where Shepard had previously worked as a busboy. Smith was planning to write about the Rounders for the rock magazine Crawdaddy, but as Shepard’s bandmate Peter Stampfel said, “As soon as she saw Sam she forgot about the article. They took up with each other right off the bat.” “It was like being at an Arabian hoedown with a band of psychedelic hillbillies,” Smith recalled, describing seeing the Holy Modal Rounders in action. “I fixed on the drummer, who seemed as if he was on the lam and had slid behind the drums while the cops looked elsewhere.” Near the end of the set Smith was struck by Shepard’s song “Blind Rage,” which he sang; Stampfel described it as a “power-punkish number,” with lines such as “I’m gonna get my gun / Shoot ’em and run.” Smith told biographer Victor Bockris that Shepard’s “whole life moves on rhythms. He’s a drummer. I mean, everything about Sam is so beautiful and has to do with rhythm. That’s why Sam and I so successfully collaborated.”
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore